Phoenix Playwright Nia Witherspoon Imagines Justice Through Art

Nia Witherspoon, who created Black Arts Matter presented by ASU Performance in the Borderlands.
Nia Witherspoon, who created Black Arts Matter presented by ASU Performance in the Borderlands.
Courtesy of ASU Performance in the Borderlands

Every other year, New Times puts the spotlight on Phoenix's creative forces — painters, dancers, designers, and actors. Leading up to the release of Best of Phoenix, we're taking a closer look at 100 more. Welcome to the 2016 edition of 100 Creatives. Up today is 44. Nia Witherspoon.

It was art or nothing. Nia Witherspoon wasn't happy with anything else. 

After spending her youth in Philadelphia, she majored in American studies at Smith College and earned a Ph.D. in theater and performance studies from Stanford University. Her experiences there, along with three key works, have helped shape her voice and influence her art. Witherspoon cites Cherríe Moraga's The Hungry Woman, Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands, and Sharon Bridgforth's delta dandi as chief among her influences. 

The 34-year-old multidisciplinary artist has made a career of her creativity, and she's taken it bicoastal. Splitting her time between Arizona and New York. Witherspoon serves as an assistant professor of theater and performance at Arizona State University, with which she'd been affiliated since 2014, and works in Brooklyn, where she was based before joining the university. 

Performance in the Borderland Director, Mary Stephens and Nia Witherspoon look on as attendees craft two-minute narratives discussing intersectional oppression and transcendence.
Performance in the Borderland Director, Mary Stephens and Nia Witherspoon look on as attendees craft two-minute narratives discussing intersectional oppression and transcendence.
Ash Ponders

Witherspoon's work involves both writing and vocal performance and composition surrounding "themes of blackness, gender/sexuality, and spirituality." And much like her cross-country residency, Witherspoon's work has found audiences across America. 

In February 2016, she worked with ASU's Performance in the Borderlands initiative to present Black Arts Matter, a series of events including a staging of The America Play, poetry readings, and a keynote address from Tia Oso. Just a few months later in May, Witherspoon saw the world première of her play, The Messiah Complex, at BRIC in Brooklyn. 

For the creative, it all seems to come back to starting a dialogue. That is, once she completes her typical to-do list, which includes about "a million logistical errands" after which she can "hopefully have contact with other human beings."

A scene from the world première of The Messiah Complex.EXPAND
A scene from the world première of The Messiah Complex.
David Andrako

I came to Phoenix with a U-Haul and a dog.

I make art because it is how I survive, it is how I worship, it is how I understand and process the world, it is how I create and build community, it is how I honor and dignify my people, and it is how I imagine justice.

I'm most productive when I have a balance of social time, alone time, and nature time.

My inspiration wall is full of affirmations and quotes.

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I've learned most from my parents Marcia and Anton Witherspoon and my creative mentors Cherríe Moraga and Sharon Bridgforth.

Good work should always be most deeply itself.

The Phoenix creative scene could use more structural support and venues that support artists of color and indigenous artists, including 501c3's so that folks have more opportunities to apply for grants at the national level; and cross-pollination with national arts movements to match the level of sophistication in Phoenix's political grassroots community.

The 2016 Creatives so far:

100. Nicole Olson
99. Andrew Pielage
98. Jessica Rowe
97. Danny Neumann
96. Beth Cato
95. Jessie Balli
94. Ron May
93. Leonor Aispuro
92. Sarah Waite
91. Christina "Xappa" Franco
90. Christian Adame
89. Tara Sharpe
88. Patricia Sannit
87. Brian Klein
86. Dennita Sewell
85. Garth Johnson
84. Charissa Lucille
83. Ryan Downey
82. Samantha Thompson
81. Cherie Buck-Hutchison
80. Freddie Paull
79. Jennifer Campbell
78. Dwayne Hartford
77. Shaliyah Ben
76. Kym Ventola
75. Matthew Watkins
74. Tom Budzak
73. Rachel Egboro
72. Rosemary Close
71. Ally Haynes-Hamblen
70. Alex Ozers
69. Fawn DeViney
68. Laura Dragon
67. Stephanie Neiheisel
66. Michael Lanier
65. Jessica Rajko
64. Velma Kee Craig
63. Oliver Hibert
62. Joya Scott
61. Raji Ganesan
60. Ashlee Molina
59. Myrlin Hepworth
58. Amy Ettinger
57. Sheila Grinell
56. Forrest Solis
55. Mary Meyer
54. Robert Hoekman Jr.
53. Joan Waters
52. Gabriela Muñoz
51. ColorOrgy
50. Liz Magura
49. Anita and Sam Means
48. Liz Ann Hewett
47. Tiffany Fairall
46. Vanessa Davidson
45. Michelle Dock

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